Monday, June 18, 2012

Reading Conan: Shadows in the Moonlight and Queen of the Black Coast

I've finally started reading my first Conan stories in a volume called "Conan the Barbarian: The Original Unabridged Adventures of the World's Greatest Fantasy Hero", published by Carlton Books/Metro Books in 2010. I had briefly glanced over the interesting but somewhat dry and exhaustive opening work, a long, textbook like account of the Hyborian Age (set in a fictional historical setting on Earth) before recorded human history) but never got beyond that.
This morning I sat down with it and took in the first couple stories in the compilation.  There are some spoilers below, beware!  I tried to keep them on the vague side (I don't think anything of note or too specific related to the stories are spoiled), but I take no responsibility for you here!

Shadows in the Moonlight
This seems like a fitting introduction for Conan. An enslaved noblewoman, sold off by her own family, is saved from a brutal tyrant king by the barbarian. They then flee to a dangerous island that appears to be haunted, only to find themselves trapped on land by pirates.
Most of the story is actually told from the perspective of Olivia, the noblewoman. She's unfortunately a painful stereotype of the old helpless princess, only slightly redeemed as the story goes on. Watching her bumble about in a pathetic daze is less than appealing, but through her we're introduced to the noble savage. Despite the brute strength, there's some genuine intelligence to Conan, as well as a warm humanity that stands in start contrast to the earlier “civilized” king, the petty pirates or the monsters on the island, perhaps an idealized medium between arrogant, soft civilization and outright animalistic barbarianism.
The writing itself is fantastic in terms of description. It's a very enjoyable prose that paints strong images. Even the slightly lacking story and uneven pace don't hinder the text once Howard gets into his groove.

Queen of the Black Coast
I'm not sure if the stories in this compilation are simply put in the wrong order, or if Conan stories are typically unrelated, but this makes for a jarring transition. No reference is made to Olivia, and Conan almost seems to be a slightly different character. Gone are the noble roots, and he quickly falls in with pirates, professing his love for the lifestyle and caring not who he fights as long as he's fighting.
The female lead in this one, Belit, the titular Queen of the Black Coast, is just as much of a cliché. Sporting only a girdle, she's described as particularly busty (titular indeed!) and attractive, and her personality is about what you'd expect of your typical femme fatale. Her crew see her as a goddess, she's above everyone and highly skilled, and only the equally smitten protagonist can compare with her. Whereas Olivia had a moment or two nearing the end that showed some potential for character growth, Belit never struck me as anything but a blasé pirate female fatale type.
Their meeting is even more embarrassing and downright laughable. While the pirates are slaughtering the crew on Conan's ship, he bounds over to their boat and begins returning the favor. The merchant sailors are killed to the last man while Conan is decimating the pirate crew. Then Belit bounds up to him, and they profess their love for each other.
No joke.
Thankfully, he doesn't describe in any significant detail their rough love shortly afterward right on the deck in front of her crew.
After that rocky start, things really pick up as they stumble across the ancient ruins of an old city. Howard describes in vivid detail the city, Conan's visions, and an inventive backstory to the race that once lived there long before humans came into existence. The second half of the story makes up for the first with wonderful prose that kept my interested and excited for the next.
Although I've written more bashing this story than complimenting it, I can't stress the above paragraph enough: even with the characters falling flat and the opening being utterly absurd, the writing picks up to an exception degree. The descriptions alone are worth reading, and Howard does a great job of taking a somewhat meandering story and giving it some tension and intrigue.  Overall, I probably did enjoy Queen of the Black Coast a bit more than the previous story, which I liked in itself.

Other Thoughts
The pacing of both stories seemed a little off. The setup struck me as disjointed, but once the stories arrived at their prime destinations (the island in the former and the ruins in the latter), things picked up nicely on two accounts. First, the stories began moving much smoother, and second, with more stationary locales, there was more time for Howard to work his magic describing situations, emotions and locations. Both ended on an intense, satisfying note, particularly Queen of the Black Coast.
After the odd transition between the two stories and the changes in Conan's demeaner, I had to look up the chronology. According to Wikipedia, there's no definitive one. After Howard, several writers (some of significant note, like Robert Jordan) picked up the mantle. As expected, between multiple writers, and with more Conan stories by the original author emerging after his death, there's quite a bit of debate and conflict. Writers piece stories before, around and in the middle of existing Howard works. Still, it did clarify that Shadows takes place after Queen, which may explain Conan's personality shift.
I do wonder why then they decided to order the stories in such a way. Perhaps they simply thought Shadows was a better introduction to the character, and in truth he did come off as more likable on the island than later gallivanting with pirates.
Is it a bit jarring to see race blatantly referred to throughout both stories. The term "negro" appears a time or two in Shadows, and "blacks" is used instead in Queen of the Black Coast. To Howard's credit, however, Conan treats every man the same. While explicit culture is often referred to (Conan's Cimmerian heritage, the description of the sailors as Argosean), skin color never seems to be anything more than a physical description. I'm not sure if it was an explicit message on the author's part or simply an aspect of the prehistory context of Hyborian that lacks the racial component we give to skin color, but it was refreshing to see from stories written in the 1920s and 30s after the jarring use of the language.
Apparently many Conan stories are already in the public domain, but it's just so much more appealing to read them in book form. I'm definitely going to keep reading from here (the volume includes seven other stories), if only for the stellar prose (It's really very cool, I'm fairly enthralled with his descriptions). My hopes for the rest: a bit more personality and consistent likability to Conan, female leads that aren't so vapid, and a smoother pace. We'll see how it goes!